I have only ever watched one Alexander Payne film, that being Sideways. (When Election first came out I was eager to watch it, but could never find it on DVD; I somehow never got inclined enough to catch About Schmidt; and I've barely even heard a thing about Citizen Ruth.) Mainly I liked it because I saw a lot of myself in the Paul Giamatti character, whereas the Thomas Hayden Church character reminded me just as much of a close friend of mine. Personal issues aside, that's pretty much what I remember most about it, but I think I might want to hunt down the DVD and watch it again soon.
Because after his latest film, Payne might just have become one of my most eagerly anticipated filmmakers.
Matt King's (George Clooney) life is thrown into upheaval after his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is rendered comatose in a boating accident. He now has to reconnect with his daughters - 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) who is showing signs of inappropriate behaviour, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has a history of rebelliousness and substance abuse - as well as his drifting-apart marriage. In addition, Matt is also the sole trustee of several thousand acres of pristine Hawaiian land, and he is in the midst of negotiating its sale whilst gathering the consent of his extended network of cousins, including Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). When the doctor tells him that Elizabeth will never recover, he has to break the news to all their friends as well as his in-laws, in particular Elizabeth's doting father (Robert Forster). But when Alex reveals that his wife had been cheating on him, Matt is goaded into seeking out Elizabeth's lover - a man named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), who it turns out also has a wife (Judy Greer) - with his daughters and Alex's dimwitted friend Sid (Nick Krause) tagging along. What good it would do to confront the man though, Matt has no idea.
The Descendants reminds me a lot of 50/50. Both are films that deal with death and tragedy and leaven them with comedy. But though I liked that Jonathan Levine-directed Joseph Gordon-Levitt-starrer plenty, my main criticism of it is that its balance of comedy and drama seemed a little skewed to the former, and didn't right itself till the latter half. Payne, working off a screenplay he co-wrote based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, avoids this neatly. It maintains a consistent tone throughout - and that tone is a quirky, bemused contemplation of how tragedy leads to the kind of ignominy that also lends itself to comedy. The death of a wife, mother, daughter and friend is dealt with in all its heartbreaking sadness, yet the humour of the film never undermines it - nor does it ever descend into tear-jerking melodrama. The film's tightrope walk between funny and tragic is a thing to behold.
There are several instances where the tragedy of the story is undercut almost immediately afterwards by humour. The scene where Matt first tells Alex about her mother's impending death, for one; she submerges herself in the swimming pool and screams her anguish underwater, then berates her dad for telling such news to her while she's swimming. Or when Matt does the same to his father-in-law; right after a father learns of the death of his adult daughter, Sid says something hilariously insensitive that earns him a facepunch. The character of Sid provides much of the comic relief, with his goofy grin and his stoner-casual attitude towards the family's tragedy - but there's a later scene that reveals exactly why Alex is friends with him and why she wants him around during this time. There's also a liberal amount of profanity in the dialogue (none of which is censored, yay!), and one of the funniest running gags is Matt's complete inability to control his daughters' - both his daughters - vulgar language.
But I fear I'm talking too much of the film's surface. It's a richly emotionally resonant film, one that's not making it easy for me to talk about all its themes and depths. Its main throughline would be how Matt comes to terms with what Elizabeth meant to him, in all her good and bad; the first time he visits her after he learns of her infidelity, he launches into an angry and vicious tirade, seeking answers she can no longer give. But almost immediately after, when Alex does the same - for her own reasons to be angry at her mother - Matt chastises her to be more respectful. For all that he is an absentee father and neglectful husband, he is still a good, responsible man; at first he balks at the prospect of informing their large network of friends about his wife's inevitable death, but he goes through it with a minimum of fuss, despite the immense emotional toll it takes on him. And he speaks glowingly of their initial courtship when Scottie innocently asks him how they met. It isn't till he confronts Brian Speer that he finds the answers he seeks - why she did what she did, and who she truly was.
I admit that I still have trouble thinking of George Clooney as a serious dramatic actor, despite his current penchant for roles in movies like Michael Clayton, Up in the Air and The Ides of March; I still tend to think of him as the action hero of The Peacemaker and Batman and Robin and the icon of suaveness in Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven. Maybe I should revise my thinking. During the scene where Alex first tells him about Elizabeth's affair, Clooney plays it with a coiled and intimidating fury that seems distinctly un-Matt-King-like - and right after, he undercuts this in just the right way with a remarkable bit of physical acting. (The way he runs.) The performances are terrific, even from supporting actors like Robert Forster, Amara Miller, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer, but the one other standout is Shailene Woodley, whose most prominent previous credit is a teen TV series. Some may think it a copout that her difficult relationship with her father is repaired so easily, but me, I loved seeing her join forces with Matt in getting back at Brian with an almost malicious glee. (It also helps that she is frequently bikini-clad and looks drop-dead gorgeous in them.)
And there's also its depiction of Hawaii, a part of the US that is rarely seen in movies and very different from the glitzy and glamourous Los Angeles that most Hollywood movies are filmed in. Early on, a voiceover by Matt skewers the common perception of the islands as paradise by saying "Paradise can go f**k itself." And indeed, we see plenty of the dull suburban streets and office parks of Honolulu (the state capital), and there's plenty of local colour in how all the locals - even the rich folk - dress in aloha shirts and bermuda shorts all the time. On the other hand, the seaside land owned by Matt's family, descended from genuine Hawaiian royalty (did you know Hawaii had a royal family?) is stunningly beautiful. And part of the film's unique setting is in Matt's background of having a fabulously wealthy inheritance, which he steadfastly refuses to flaunt or squander - unlike some of his cousins. One of the threads in the complex tangle of Matt and Elizabeth's relationship is that she resents him for not spending more of his money on her, against his principle of frugality - and how he may now regret it.
Now that I come to think about it, The Descendants has a great deal in common with the 2008 Japanese film Departures. Both deal with the messy business of mortality; how death strikes without warning and rarely, if ever, offers its next of kin the closure that humans need; and how we go about finding that closure when it seems the only person who can offer it is gone forever. It is a universal truth that our lives are finite, but death is such an alien thing, so outside of human comprehension - and thus a film like this, that aims to shed light on it with wit and warmth and insight, is a rare treasure. If all you expect from movies is empty spectacle and frivolous laughs, I urge you to catch this one - a film that is real and true and human. As I've said before, watching a really good human drama will make you a better person.
NEXT REVIEW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Expectations: *snort of derision*